Farming may not seem like an obvious career choice for a woman – but Thokozile Maphisa, the founder of Ikusasalethu Agricultural Projects, is at her happiest in the fields.
According to the Sustainability Initiative of South Africa’s study on Women and Gender in South African Agriculture, published in 2019, 52% of part-time workers in the agricultural industry are female. Only 34% of full-time workers are female, and when it comes to landholders, the figures are even more dismal: although 60-80% of smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa are women, only 15-20% are landholders.
Thokozile is one of the young women who are changing the face of the agricultural industry in South Africa, having experienced her first taste of farming on her mother’s farm. “My late brother and I used to spend many hours during school holidays and the weekends pretending that we, too, were farmers, herding the clay cattle we made,” she recalls. “There’s something about being around plants and animals, seeing them grow and reproduce, that brings me peace.”
Today, Thokozile’s Ikusasalethu Agricultural Projects – comprising 50 hectares of land in Harrismith in the Free State, which she runs on her mother’s farm – produces yellow maize, sugar beans and soybeans, as well as calves. While her crops are sold to processing companies and feedlots, her calves are sold at auction. She has, moreover, created work for four full-time and 60 seasonal workers.
However, Thokozile admits that she, and the business, have travelled a difficult road to reach this point. She started Ikusasalethu Agricultural Projects with just one calf in 2014. Although she planned to increase the number of cows to five, she encountered a major setback when some of her cattle were stolen. Undeterred, she remained focused on her goals, gradually expanding the scope of the project. In 2020, the project began producing yellow maize. The following year, she was joined in the venture by a shareholder, and expanded further by planting sugar beans and soybeans.
Thokozile used her entire savings to plant the current set of crops. She explains that she holds a part-time job in construction (where she works as a mechanical and piping supervisor) to fund her agricultural business, as it is difficult to obtain grant funding from the Department of Agriculture.
Thokozile admits that the business’s impressive growth has come as a result of hard work and a dedication to problem-solving. Farming is not a profession for the faint-hearted: among the challenges that she has little control over (like the effects of climate conditions, theft, price fluctuations and disease), she also must contend with issues that often stymie entrepreneurs, like access to capital or inadequate resources; in this case, farming equipment and infrastructure.
“We currently hire all equipment, although we are hoping to buy our own in future as this would help to bring down business costs. We’re also looking to create storage facilities where we can store produce until prices increase,” she informs.
Because Thokozile farms on the same land as her mother, the family have had to find a way to ensure their businesses operate in harmony. “Although our businesses are separate, we produce the same commodities on the same land. That can be challenging, because funders don’t see us as different entities; they seek to fund one farm.” Personal conflicts are sometimes inevitable when working with family, but Thokozile says that they have found a way to navigate arguments. Her own approach is to give the issue some distance before sitting down to find a solution.
There are also advantages to this working relationship. “Our income stays in the family, which is a big plus. And, because we trust each other and understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses, our decision-making processes are simpler.”
Thokozile’s plans now are to build on the growth Ikusasalethu has already achieved. “We’re hoping to secure grant funding which will allow us to build up our infrastructure, purchase our own land and equipment. Our next step will be to increase our range by introducing winter crops,” she concludes.